Decline the Invitation
By Carl Kozlowski
It’s hard to believe, but until August: Osage County hit theaters, the two most popular actresses of our time—Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts—had never worked together. Their teaming should have resulted in a film that would stand the test of time as a historic artistic endeavor.
Instead, this adaptation of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts is overrun by over-the-top hysteria from its two leads and an impressive array of supporting actors, while depicting the bilious relationships among a supposedly average heartland family in rural Oklahoma. Packed with characters who are related by blood and longtime marriages but who reek with contempt for each other, it’s another sad example of cultural elitists offering their smug takes on the sad and empty lives of anyone who doesn’t choose to live in New York or L.A.
August follows the emotional havoc wrought among an extended family when they reunite both to assess their cancer-stricken, prescription-drug-addicted mother Violet (Streep) and to attend the funeral of their alcoholic estranged father (Sam Shepard). The daughter who is most bitter about the family is Barbara (Roberts), who managed to escape to an ostensibly better life as a college professor in Boulder, Colorado, but who has a damaged marriage of her own.
Surrounding the central battle between Violet and Barbara are about a dozen other family members who are either latching onto bad relationships as a means of escape, experimenting with drugs, hiding their failing marriages or falling in love without realizing they’re actually half-siblings. Almost everyone gets drunk or high at some point, but they definitely all take part in emotionally abusive attacks on each other.
I’ll admit that some of the lines used in these fights work to dark comedic effect, and the all-too-rare quiet moments where Streep or Roberts calm down and attempt to make peace are nicely played and even touching. But when everyone on screen is screaming F-bombs at each other and no one winds up being the good guy or even someone you want to relate to—when the movie is basically one long, ugly dinner party without a single person you’d want to invite into your own house—then it is simply too unpleasant to recommend.
As someone who grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, attended college in Texas and continues to visit family in Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky, I’ve earned my right to wonder why modern Hollywood nearly always treats Midwesterners and Southerners with outright condescension and contempt. People in small towns have their share of bad marriages and family travails, but Hollywood needs to remember all the stars with five marriages, out of control kids and raging addictions who are living amongst themselves. Doesn’t anyone remember the screaming tabloid headlines that accompanied the fact that Julia Roberts snagged her own husband while he was married to another woman?
There are still a vast majority of people in the heartland and the South who are kind and goodhearted and who love to go to the movies when they’re not being insulted by their depiction on the big screen.
Remember The Blind Side, which focused on the true story of a white Christian woman in Texas who saved the life of a troubled black high school football player by helping him escape his rough life in housing projects? It made $250 million and scored Sandra Bullock an Oscar. I personally sat among a sold-out theater showing of it in Pelham, Alabama, a full seven weeks after it opened.
August: Osage County is doing solid business for a movie that’s basically art house fare, but it will not resonate with the public on anywhere near the level of The Blind Side. Sure, not every movie has to show happy people or successful marriages, but it would be nice if movies like this one could at least have a little balance to the bile.